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Surgeon General Issues New Advisory About Effects Social Media Use Has on Youth Mental Health

Social media use by youth is nearly universal. Up to 95% of youth ages 13–17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.” Although age 13 is commonly the required minimum age used by social media platforms in the U.S., nearly 40% of children ages 8–12 use social media.

This year, the United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a new Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health - PDF. While social media may offer some benefits, there are ample indicators that social media can also pose a risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents. Social media use by young people is nearly universal, with up to 95% of young people ages 13-17 reporting using a social media platform and more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.”

With adolescence and childhood representing a critical stage in brain development that can make young people more vulnerable to harms from social media, the Surgeon General is issuing a call for urgent action by policymakers, technology companies, researchers, families, and young people alike to gain a better understanding of the full impact of social media use, maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of social media platforms, and create safer, healthier online environments to protect children.

In the 19-page advisory, Dr. Vivek Murthy noted, “There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” Murthy also calls on tech companies to enforce minimum age limits and to create default settings for children with high safety and privacy standards, and he urged the government to create age-appropriate health and safety standards.

With the increase usage of social media, we see an increase in numbers on self-reports and clinical diagnoses among adolescents of anxiety and depression, along with emergency room visits for self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Murthy’s push for caution joins a growing body of calls for action regarding youth and social media. The American Psychological Association issued its first-ever social media guidance recently, recommending that parents closely monitor teens’ usage.

The surgeon general’s advisory noted that social media platforms have “extreme, inappropriate and harmful content,” including content that “can normalize” self-harm, eating disorders and other self-destructive behavior. Cyberbullying is rampant.

Curating children's social media use is important to ensure their safety, well-being, and healthy development in the digital age. Here are some recommendations to help families in this endeavor:

Set Age-Appropriate Boundaries: Consider the age and maturity level of your child when determining their access to social media. Many social media platforms have age restrictions, so it's important to adhere to them. Younger children may not be ready for social media, while older children may benefit from limited and supervised access.

Educate and Communicate: Talk to your children about the potential risks and benefits of social media. Teach them about online safety, responsible digital citizenship, privacy settings, and the importance of maintaining a positive online presence. Encourage open communication, so they feel comfortable discussing their online experiences with you.

Establish Clear Rules and Guidelines: Create a set of family rules and guidelines regarding social media use. This may include setting time limits, specifying which platforms are allowed, and defining appropriate online behavior. Ensure that your child understands and follows these rules consistently.

Monitor and Supervise: Regularly monitor your child's social media activities, especially for younger children. Be aware of the platforms they are using and who they are interacting with online. Consider utilizing parental control software or privacy settings to restrict access and filter content.

Encourage Privacy Settings: Help your child understand the importance of privacy settings and guide them in configuring their social media accounts to maximize privacy. Teach them to review and manage their friend lists, limit personal information shared publicly, and be cautious about accepting friend requests from strangers.

Be a Positive Role Model: Children often mimic the behavior they observe, so set a good example by being mindful of your own social media use. Demonstrate healthy digital habits, respectful online communication, and responsible sharing of content.

Foster Critical Thinking Skills: Teach your child to think critically about the content they encounter on social media. Help them question the accuracy and reliability of information, identify potential biases or manipulations, and recognize harmful or misleading content.

Encourage Offline Activities: Encourage your child to engage in offline activities such as sports, hobbies, reading, and spending time with friends and family. Balance their screen time with other meaningful and enriching experiences to promote a well-rounded lifestyle.

Maintain Open Communication: Keep the lines of communication open with your child. Encourage them to come to you if they encounter any concerning or uncomfortable situations online. Assure them that you are there to support and guide them through any challenges they may face.

Remember, each child is unique, and it's important to tailor your approach based on their age, maturity, and individual needs. Regularly reassess and adapt your strategies as your child grows and technology evolves.

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